Conducting on-farm trials is nothing new for Shane and Fraser McNaul, father and son duo at “Wakoola”, Wakool in southern NSW. With a double cropping regime on their irrigation property they have been recording practices and results for many years.
With the introduction of teff, a grass endemic to Ethiopia yet grown widely around the world, to their enterprise, the versatility of this plant has earned it a permanent place on the farm.
“We are delighted with the value the teff gives us” Fraser McNaul said. “After we’d harvested the very small seeds, we cut hay, re-watered then used that same paddock to lamb a mob of ewes. The straw has a protein content of seven per cent and, even though the sheep don’t find it really palatable, the cattle do”.
“Our plan is to grow enough teff to supply into the gluten-free market for retail customers and food service both as grain and milled flour. Ultimately, we want to be founders of a large and viable sector and supply seed to other growers”.
The McNauls also grow corn and rice and they are considering whether or not to grow all gluten-free crops which would be simpler than having to double-up on machinery, which is the case at present. To be totally gluten-free, equipment must be free of any potential contaminants as coeliacs will react adversely to the slightest traces (of gluten) in their foods.
“We test on farm for the presence of gluten in all crops and send random samples to a food laboratory in Melbourne for further testing to be absolutely sure”.
The next stage in the value-adding process is to establish their own on-farm mill under the brand Outback Grain Co. At present, their seeds are milled at a facility in Melbourne and this learning process took a little more time than anticipated.
“When our first batch came back, we thought we’d accidentally dropped a bag of sand into the sample as there was grittiness in our mouths which was a bit of a worry. The teff had been ground between stones so, next time, it was processed using steel blades and what a difference that made”, explained Shane McNaul.
Teff flour can be used in many products in the same way as wheat flour, making it a desired product for gluten-intolerant metabolisms and people with coeliac disease. It is easily digested with a high protein percentage, and valued by vegetarians. It is particularly sought by Ethiopian people living in Australia as they are familiar with how to use it for traditional dishes.
As far as the McNauls know, there are two other teff growers in Australia; one in South Australia and the other near Shepparton in Victoria. “We would like to lead this sector and learn to grow without chemicals as we have had many enquirers ask “Are you certified organic? We’re not sure we’ll go down that route but, it is interesting that eight of ten people ask that question first”.
The McNaul’s faba beans are almost ready for harvesting and, once they are off, it is time to sow this summer’s crop of teff and corn into those paddocks. Both crops require similar amounts of water and have three month growing periods.
Both Shane and Fraser McNaul are curious to learn how to grow non-traditional crops, including Fraser spending time in South America finding ideas and knowledge.
“We are quietly confident this ancient grain will become a permanent member of our regime with the most exciting phase yet to come – when we have on-farm milling and we are selling under our own brand; perhaps next year”,